Tuesday, November 05, 2019

87. Severance by Ling Ma

I can not now remember the precise details of why I had kept this book on my list.  I know I read a review that made it sound fantastic.  It's in the post-apocalyptic genre and supposedly was a fresh take on the modern workplace, two areas of fictional interest for me.  It got so much hype that it sold out and was hard to find even new for a while. I am also trying to support independent bookstores, so will buy a brand-new book from time to time. I found this in Argo and picked it up.

Unfortunately, it really didn't live up to the hype.  My rule of skepticism towards literary fiction and trade paperbacks remains firmly in place.  It's not a bad book, in the second half it actually gets going and becomes fairly engaging.  It has clearly been carefully crafted and overall the writing is good (though there are a lot of throwaway, clever little descriptions that while not "bad" writing, feel too much of a time and style and undermine any substance that is developed by the narrative).  But the reviews.  One wonders if these people have ever read a good book before.  They acted like this book was some profound exposé on the millenial condition and the modern workforce.  While I enjoyed the details of the protagonist's job working for a book production company, managing the logistical details for outsourced manufacturing jobs in China, there was nothing particularly profound or groundbreaking here. It was a very typical, at times clichéd story of a  young, educated woman first moving to New York City, trying to fit in socially, sexually and professionally.  She is ironically self-critical and aware that she is doing nothing new, yet this does not dismiss the fact that the writer is doing the same thing.

There are two main storylines,  involving Candace Chen, who comes from Salt Lake City after college (with a photography degree) and her immigrant parents' deaths.  The first is as described above, her finding her way in the big city.  It is a pretty depressing and effective portrait of how cookie-cutter New York has become in the age of globalization and wealth disparity.  That rot was already well-advanced when I left in 2004, so I can only imagine how little of anything authentic or original remains, other than the power of money to keep people motivated.  I did enjoy reading this take on NYC, less so however the unmotivated meanderings of the protagonist, which really felt basically autobiographical and is simply not that interesting.  The second storyline is 5 years in the future, where Candace is now part of a small group of travellers, making their way to Chicago after the Shen Disease, a fungal parasite that turns people into harmless zombies, repeating their old habits à la Dawn of the Dead (though not messing with anybody or wanting to eat brains), has wiped out most of the population. Again, Candace is disconnected from her surroundings and colleagues and there wasn't really a lot new added to the PA genre here.  It wasn't boring though and some seeds are set, particularly with the mansplaining leader, Bob, of their group and hints of his malevolence.

Things do pick up in the second half of the book in both storylines.  Candace's disaffection and lack of connections mean she ends up being one of the last few people in New York City and watching it go empty and her steadfastly going to her job until she is the only one is quite enjoyable.  Likewise, the PA storyline, where they finally find this shopping mall that Bob was leading them to, gets interesting as well.  Finally, her own backstory and the struggles of her parents immigrating in the 80s, which are woven throughout the other two storylines, are also quite interesting, kind of sad.  When I think back, there are kind of like three books in here, two of them being quite good (her background and the Shen disease fallout and journey) and one being pretty derivative (the NYC first time one).  I think the biggest disappointment was how little this book said about the supposed Millennial condition.  As always, I should not believe the hype.

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